Oregon state Rep. Knute Buehler, long regarded as the front-runner in the race to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination, is irking many of the party faithful by skipping a string of GOP candidate forums.
“It is raising a lot of questions,” said Baker County Republican Chairwoman Suzan Ellis Jones, after Buehler was a no-show at an event this week sponsored by her county party. “People are asking why. You know, it’s peculiar.”
In recent weeks, Buehler also did not attend similar Republican forums in Linn and Marion counties as well as at the Republican state convention in Lebanon on March 17 — although he was at a social event where the candidates had a chance to talk the night before, according to state party spokesman Kevin Hoar. His rivals are starting to take notice.
“Voters are going to be asking themselves the question, ‘What is he hiding from?’” said Russ Walker, a strategist for another Republican candidate, retired Naval aviator Greg Wooldridge. “If he’s not willing to meet people face-to-face … I’m not sure he’s really ready to represent the people of Oregon.”
Bend businessman Sam Carpenter, who styles himself as an Oregon version of President Donald Trump, has been tweeting the hashtag #NoShowKnute.
“He’s either giving up or it’s a campaign strategy,” said Carpenter, adding that he tends to think Buehler is hesitant about confronting party conservatives who disagree with him on issues like abortion.
Rebecca Tweed, Buehler’s campaign manager, said he isn’t trying to avoid his primary opponents.
“It really comes down to scheduling,” Tweed said. “We’ve had Knute booked out for months with lunches, fundraising events” and other activities — including meetings with local Republicans.
Tweed said Buehler is scheduled to attend one upcoming candidate forum that could be important. The Washington County Republican Party plans to break with tradition by making endorsements before the May 15 primary, and as part of that, it’s holding a candidate forum April 14 in Hillsboro.
Several Republican veterans said Buehler has good reason not to spend much time at candidate forums where the questioning could turn hostile.
“I don’t think it hurts when he misses some of these things,” said Greg Leo, a former executive director of the Oregon Republican Party who hasn’t endorsed any of the candidates. “He’s kind of the guy to beat, and a lot of the other folks will be aiming questions at him to embarrass him and get videotape of him.”
Buehler is certainly the most well-funded of the 10 candidates who have filed for the GOP nomination. He’s raised $3 million and has about $1.5 million in the bank.
Carpenter and Wooldridge are the only two candidates who have raised over $100,000, and neither has Buehler’s experience as an elected official or in campaigns.
Buehler, an orthopedic surgeon in Bend, has also sought to project a moderate image that his backers think would help him in a general election. He describes himself as pro-choice, refused to vote for Trump and in the last session supported a gun control bill.
Tweed, Buehler’s campaign manager, said he doesn’t have any hesitancy about describing his positions to the party faithful. She said he frequently meets with Republican activists when he visits a community.
But Jones, the Baker County Republican chairwoman, said Buehler should do more to get to these candidate forums.
“He should be attending these things,” she said, “because people like to talk to who they are going to vote for.”